Spectre/Meltdown CPU flaws: latest news

It’s been about two weeks since the Spectre and Meltdown CPU flaws were revealed to the world, and we now have a better picture of the scope and impact of those flaws.

Intel CPU chips are vulnerable to both Spectre and Meltdown: almost every Intel CPU made since 1995 is affected. AMD CPUs are vulnerable to Spectre, and ARM CPUs, found in millions of mobile and IoT devices, are vulnerable to Meltdown.

Spectre variant 1 and Meltdown have been patched in Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, and Linux. So far, these updates don’t seem to have affected performance on those platforms.

Spectre variant 2 can only be fixed with a firmware update, which will be optional on most platforms, but also seems likely to result in reduced performance. Firmware updates are more difficult to install than software updates. The task should not be undertaken by casual users, since mistakes can result in ‘bricked’ (unusable) devices. One possible exception is Linux, which in some cases allows for updates to be read from a file during startup, eliminating the need for updating firmware.

Intel is making available firmware updates that will hopefully eliminate the threat on affected computers, but — as Microsoft has demonstrated — many of those computers will be slowed significantly by the updates. Intel is downplaying the performance impact, saying that many users won’t even notice the difference.

Microsoft estimates the performance impact of firmware updates on Windows computers with Intel processors will vary depending on:

  • CPU: Haswell and older will be affected more
  • O/S version: Windows 7 and 8 will be affected more than Windows 10
  • I/O bound servers could be affected greatly (Microsoft may recommend avoiding the firmware updates in this case)

Unfortunately, many PC and device makers first learned of the CPU flaws when the rest of us did: on January 3. While Intel, Microsoft, and the other major players knew about the problem months earlier, less high-profile companies are now scrambling to develop firmware updates for their devices. Most are concentrating on their most recent models, and may never release updates for older devices. For example, as of January 21, the Asus web site does not show any recent firmware updates for my Asus M70AD PC. Millions of other devices seem likely to remain permanently vulnerable to Spectre 2.

The Spectre and Meltdown flaws are very deep inside the internal hardware of almost all computers. This makes them very unusual: more difficult to fix, and potentially very dangerous. Even worse, many Internet of Things devices use affected chips; these devices are usually difficult (if not impossible) to update, and may never be fixed.

The vulnerabilities were discovered in early June 2017, and disclosed privately to CPU chip makers first, then to O/S makers, browser makers, cloud and server providers. Some arguably important groups were left out, including CERT, but despite disclosure being handled responsibly, the news leaked out ahead of schedule on January 4. A lot of work had already been done, but hardly anyone was truly ready.

Intel’s response to the flaws in their CPUs has been criticized by some, and it does seem that the chip giant is not being completely transparent. Intel continues to downplay the seriousness of the flaws, and the performance impact of firmware updates. It’s also fair to ask whether in the rush to increase processor speed, security is being neglected by Intel and the other chip makers. The Spectre and Meltdown flaws should arguably have been caught in development.

What are the actual risks involved?

A malicious process on your computer could read data from another process (such as your banking app) and send it to anyone. This kind of exploit has been demonstrated as effective, and it can even be accomplished using specially-crafted Javascript code on a web site.

A malicious process on a web-based service, server, or virtual machine could read data from another process on that machine or a virtual machine that’s controlled by someone else.

Risks going forward: this has all been rushed (despite some advance warning), and the changes are at the core of CPUs and O/S kernels. Emergency fixes have a way of causing new, hidden problems. We will probably be dealing with the fallout from these flaws for months.

More rug-pulling by Google

“Hey, look here! We’ve got a great service that you need to be using. Okay, cool, now that you’ve been using the service for a while, we’re going to shut it down. Because of reasons.” — Google’s secret motto

Okay, it’s not like YouTube is shutting down, but Google has changed the rules for monetising video, and that change is going to affect a lot of creators. Specifically, starting in February, you’ll need 1000 subscribers and 4000 hours of watch time (time people spent watching your videos) in order to make money from them.

Google’s explanation? “In 2018, a major focus for everyone at YouTube is protecting our creator ecosystem and ensuring your revenue is more stable.” What does that even mean?

It seems clear that this change is a reaction to recent events, including several major advertisers pulling ads from YouTube in 2017 because of extremist content. There’s less money to go around, so Google is saving money by cutting off people who arguably need it most.

Full disclosure: my own YouTube account will be affected by this change. I’m currently in the YouTube Partner Program, which allows me to monetise my videos. Not that I’ve made much money from those ads. Google seems to make a lot more money selling ads than it hands out to people hosting those ads on their videos and web sites. In any case, I will no longer me able to earn money from ads on my videos after February.

Google, your search engine is amazing, and I use a lot of your (free) services, so I shouldn’t really complain. But dammit, this is getting annoying.

Related links

Ars Technica: YouTube raises subscriber, view threshold for Partner Program monetisation
Futurism: YouTube Cracks Down on Eligibility Requirements for Which Video Channels Can be Monetized

Opera 50 released

Opera, the alternative web browser from Norway, adds several new features in version 50, which was released earlier in January.

Perhaps the most interesting new feature detects and blocks covert cryptocurrency mining, a new threat that sneakily uses your computer’s resources to make money for the perpetrators.

Other changes in this release include:

  • Chromecast support
  • VR Player enhancements, including Oculus Rift support
  • new: save web pages as PDF files
  • improvements to the tab context menu
  • currency and unit converter improvements
  • better crash protection
  • enhancements to the built-in VPN service

You can peruse the Opera 50 change log for additional details. Keep in mind that the log shows all changes to Opera 50 from its origin as a developer release in September 2017, through its beta stages, to its official release in early 2018.

Patch Tuesday for January 2018

This month’s pile of Microsoft patches includes some that help to mitigate the recently-discovered Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities in Windows 7 and 8. Windows 10 machines received these updates last week, as soon as they were made available by Microsoft, because of course there’s no way to stop that from happening. Unfortunately for folks running some older AMD processors, the Spectre/Meltdown updates are causing Windows to crash, and Microsoft has now disabled those updates for affected computers.

It gets worse. Many antivirus products use sketchy techniques for blocking, detecting, and removing malware. Some of those activities are incompatible with this month’s Spectre/Meltdown updates for Windows. Microsoft is currently blocking those updates on computers that are missing a special registry setting: the idea is that anti-malware software will set this flag to indicate that the updates are compatible, and safe to install. On my Windows 8.1 computer, Windows Update initially did not show this month’s security-only (KB4056898) or security rollup (KB4056895) updates. That’s because (gasp) I wasn’t running any anti-malware software. To get the update, I re-enabled Windows Defender, which created the missing registry entry, and re-ran Windows Update.

There’s also a special security advisory in this month’s updates, in which Microsoft lays out the Spectre/Meltdown issue, its effect on Microsoft software, and ways to mitigate the associated vulnerabilities.

Back to our regularly-scheduled Patch Tuesday…

The January 2018 update announcement as usual contains zero useful information, serving only as a pointer to the Security Update Guide. Analysis of this month’s guide data shows that there are seventy-two updates, addressing fifty-six vulnerabilities in .NET, Internet Explorer, Edge, Office, Windows, Flash Player, Sharepoint, and SQL Server.

Firefox 57.0.4: security fixes for Spectre and Meltdown

The full scope of the recently-discovered Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities is still being determined. It may be that hardware or firmware changes will be necessary to truly remove the danger. However, it’s still possible that operating system and application updates can mitigate the risk sufficiently for most purposes.

Once Microsoft demonstrated that the new timing-based attacks could be used in JavaScript code on a malicious web page to read data from other web sites, the folks at Mozilla decided to make that more difficult to accomplish in Firefox. Since the vulnerabilities are timing-dependent, Mozilla reduced the accuracy of several time sources within Firefox that could be used in Spectre and Meltdown based exploits.

The result is Firefox 57.0.4, released on January 4. It’s difficult to know just how helpful these changes will be, but if you use Firefox, you should install this update.

Major slowdowns headed for almost all computers

Major patches are coming, for most operating systems and devices running modern (made in the last 10 years or so) processors. Changes to Windows, Linux, macOS, and most other systems will modify the way memory is used, ameliorating critical CPU security flaws, and slowing them down significantly in the process.

There’s been a lot of secrecy around this issue, with details of the flaws — discovered several months ago — only now coming to light as O/S vendors scramble to prepare patches. The flaws (commonly referred to as Spectre and Meltdown) involve potential leaking of information, as described in a recent post on The Register:

At best, the vulnerability could be leveraged by malware and hackers to more easily exploit other security bugs.

At worst, the hole could be abused by programs and logged-in users to read the contents of the kernel’s memory. Suffice to say, this is not great. The kernel’s memory space is hidden from user processes and programs because it may contain all sorts of secrets, such as passwords, login keys, files cached from disk, and so on.

Much of this is still speculation, but the reality may be even worse, so hang onto your socks, since this is going to get ugly. It’s easy to imagine class action lawsuits arising out of the mess.

Those of you running light operating systems on older hardware may have the last laugh: while many of the world’s computers will soon be noticeably — and unavoidably — slower, yours will keep chugging along unaffected… at least until they’re used to access any of the millions of computers that power web sites and services. Major providers may have no choice but to install the updates, significantly reducing the processing power of their systems.

For computers running Windows 10, system updates are literally unavoidable, and the slowdown inevitable. The rest of us will need to decide whether to risk leaving the vulnerabilities exposed, or patch them and deal with the resulting performance hit. Exploiting the vulnerabilities is not straightforward, and it should be possible to stay safe by avoiding risky behaviour, such as indiscriminately running unknown software, visiting dubious web sites, and opening links in email. However, the full extent of the risks involved is not yet known.

Related articles

The Verge: Intel’s processors have a security bug and the fix could slow down PCs
The Verge: Microsoft issues emergency Windows update for processor security bugs
The Verge: Intel says processor bug isn’t unique to its chips and performance issues are ‘workload-dependent’
The Verge: Processor flaw exposes 20 years of devices to new attack
The Verge: How to protect your PC against the major ‘Meltdown’ CPU security flaw
Google Security Blog: Today’s CPU vulnerability: what you need to know
Bruce Schneier: Spectre and Meltdown Attacks
SANS InfoSec: Spectre and Meltdown: What You Need to Know Right Now
Techdirt: A Major Security Vulnerability Has Plagued ‘Nearly All’ Intel CPUs For Years

Update 2018Jan04: Corrected title and content to show that the problem affects all modern processors, not just those made by Intel, and that there are multiple vulnerabilities. Also added more related articles.

Vivaldi 1.13.1008.40

The latest version of Vivaldi includes some security fixes from a newer version of the Chromium browser engine, so this is an important update.

Other changes in Vivaldi 1.13.1008.40 are almost all regressions, meaning that they are fixes for things that were previously fixed but broke again in recent updates. The frequency of these regression issues in Vivaldi is troubling, as it seems to indicate some sloppiness in the development process.

The announcement for Vivaldi 1.13.1008.40 makes no mention of the new version number, and fails to link to anything like a change log. It’s unclear whether these omissions were intentional, or just mistakes.

Chrome 63.0.3239.108

Two security vulnerabilities, one of which has a High risk rating, are addressed in Chrome 63.0.3239.108. The log lists a few additional changes, none of which are particularly interesting.

There’s no easy way to disable automatic updates in Chrome. Generally, if there’s an update available, it will find its way to your computer within a few days via Google’s Update Service.

You can usually trigger an update by navigating to the About Chrome page ( > Help > About Google Chrome).

Opera 49.0.2725.56

Opera just updated itself on my main computer, and now I’m running version 49.0.2725.47, which Opera itself says is the latest version. Which is odd, because the change log for Opera 49 shows the most recent set of changes is for version 49.0.2725.56.

Version confusion aside, the changes listed for Opera 49.0.2725.56 appear to be minor bug fixes. Which is weird, because the new version announcement mainly talks about improvements to Opera’s built-in VPN (Virtual Private Network) feature. The updated VPN service is apparently faster and better; it’s also now hosted on Opera’s own servers instead of SurfEasy’s.

If you use Opera’s built-in VPN, version 49.0.2725.56 may be worth exploring. Otherwise it’s unlikely to be of much interest.

News for me, stuff that matters… to me. Windows, Linux, security, tools & miscellany.